Umbrella Festival

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May 17-May 31

Students and artists are being brought together in a multi-layered response to our city’s social issues as the Umbrella Festival opens up. Ysabelle Cheung looks forward to a packed fortnight

On May 17, it will have been 153 days since protestors in the Umbrella Revolution were cleared from the streets of Central. Nevertheless, on this day, discourse on the city’s political and social past, present and future is being reignited in the form of a humble-yet-powerful cultural event, titled the Umbrella Festival. Curated by the students of Chinese University (who else?) alongside academics from the university’s school of cultural management, the fortnight-long arts fest is a summation of an ongoing project and coursework of sorts, with an open call for multidisciplinary artworks. Last year, university cohorts presented a collection pertaining to the idea of Hong Kong being a fast-paced city. This time, the conversation turns inevitably to perhaps the most significant political event of the century so far: the 2014 Occupy Central protests or, as we now know them, the Umbrella Revolution.

The protests, however, are merely a starting point from which to explore and exchange ideas about Hong Kong and its various quandaries, says Dr Benny Lim, festival co-ordinator and a lecturer at Chinese University’s department of cultural and religious studies. “The students and I sat down to see how we could respond [to Occupy Central] from a cultural perspective,” he says, “but the first thing to mention for sure is that the festival is not directly related to the Umbrella Movement. It’s just a sort of conceptual framework that shows relevant works – and we were open for proposals that looked at either side of the argument.”

The festival runs from May 17 to 31 and includes English-language play The Immigration Lottery, which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The drama is a prime example of a work that did not necessarily spring directly from the protest but speaks on similar wavelengths about identity and collective future dreams. There’s a workshop that explores how to fold an origami umbrella (mimicking impromptu events that took place within the occupied areas last autumn), as well as film screenings chronicling Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement (a three-week protest against a trade pact with China) and newly edited footage from the Umbrella Movement. There’s also an exhibition series at JCCAC titled Blossoms Everywhere. This is curated by Professor Oscar Ho, programme director of cultural management at Chinese University and a prominent spokesman on public art in Hong Kong.

Protestors wear protective gear and hoist their now iconic umbrellas during last year's Occupy Central protest

“The Umbrella Movement definitely changed the entire cultural landscape of Hong Kong,” says Ho. “Suddenly everyone’s creativity was liberated – everyone was an artist. It was totally unexpected, especially from the students. I always assumed that after graduation, most of them would just care about money and their careers, so I was so impressed and surprised when they did this. It was totally beyond my original thinking.” The exhibition includes photographs from the protest by WL Tsui and installations by artist Kacey Wong, including a construction of a self-sustaining ‘hawker’ stall fitted with growing flora and a yellow umbrella. This piece references the resilience of Hongkongers in the face of space constraints and the no-surrender mentality.

Lim mentions that the festival is still in a transitory stage in that it continues to accept submissions, even until the opening day. This is due to the ever-changing nature of conversation surrounding the engagement of politics, arts and society in our city. Ho, on the other hand, is looking even further ahead, explaining the Umbrella Festival is just one of the multidisciplinary channels integral to the future of open dialogue. “We can’t ‘occupy’ forever, so we need other channels,” he says. “It’s important to not stop the momentum. Our dialogue is multi-channelled. It’s through websites, through art events, through the mobile classroom, through ideas and through conversations in any space. I think we’re entering a new stage: there are blossoms reaching all kinds of people. Blossoms everywhere.”

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